Presbyterians of the Past

Samuel Blatchford, Immigrant Pastor & Educator

Some Americans captured at sea during the Revolutionary War were held in Mill Prison in Plymouth, England. In February 1792 one prisoner, Captain John Green, wrote a letter to Henry Laurens in London. Green’s letter informed Laurens about the living conditions and provided a list of the  prisoners held in the prison. The incarcerated were primarily “natives of South Carolina, Farmers and Traders,” along with “many others sent from New York.” Green added that they were “much Crowded in this place, tho’ healthy, but much dread the Summer’s heat.” Laurens had been released from the Tower of London where he was held for high treason because of his participation in the Revolution.  Now that the war had ended, he was living in London as a member of the American commission to negotiate peace with Britain. Some citizens of Plymouth sympathetic to the poor conditions in Mill Prison organized a benevolent society to take food and necessities to the captured men. Boys were used to deliver the packages, one of which was Samuel Blatchford. He often chatted with the Americans about their time aboard ship, but most of all his curiosity was peaked by news of the land across the sea. He was fascinated with the accounts of beauty and opportunity and purposed to go to America one day.

Samuel was born August 1, 1767 to Henry and Mary (Heath) Blatchford in the village of Plymouth Dock, currently Devonport in the County of Devon, England. Between the ages of seven and nine he survived two dangerous incidents one of which is related in the following paragraph.

I had been amusing myself nearly the whole of an afternoon by fishing from a boat which lay beside the dock, and was so much occupied by my employment, that I did not perceive the falling of the tide. It fell, I think, about twelve or fourteen feet. It now became a question how to return, and I determined to clamber up by the help of the projecting stones by which the pier was built. In the attempt, one of the stones gave way, and I fell between the boat and the pier. At the adjoining pier lay a collier [a ship for transporting coal], of about three hundred tons burden, on the yard-arm of which was Mr. Blewits, belonging to the Customs. He swung off from the yard-arm by means of a rope, and caught me by my hair, and thus rescued me from a watery grave. (Memorial II, 1912, p. 10)

It was good that Samuel lived in an era when it was fashionable for males to have long hair. It was also fortunate that Blewits was brawny and had the agility of Douglas Fairbanks to pull him from danger, but then collecting tariffs required some intimidation and size in an era when smuggling was a way of life.

Samuel’s education began with a man named Waters, but he soon entered classical studies directed by a minister named King, but his studies were completed with Reverend Stokes. Both masters were Anglicans who were well known for their knowledge of the field of science. Science and technology would be a particular interest for young Blatchford and play a part in his later years.

Having completed preparatory studies, he went on to the Dissenters Theological School in Homerton. A close friend of Isaac Watts, Thomas Gibbons, was the instructor. While a student, Blatchford was involved in relief ministry to some of the multitude of impoverished widows residing around the country. As the British Empire expanded many men were killed in battle or died of diseases at sea or in the colonies, others lost their lives making a living among the dangerous cogs and furnaces of the Industrial Revolution. At several of these almshouses divinity students delivered sermons, so Blatchford seized the opportunity to develop his preaching skills. During his last year at Homerton, he supplied the church in Plymouth. About the same time he was introduced to Pastor William Evans of the United Congregations of Kingsbridge and Ford and when his theological studies were completed, Evans invited him to become an assistant. A bonus of the call was meeting Alicia Windeatt, and they were married during March 1788. He was ordained the next year to pastor a Presbyterian Church in Topsham, near Exeter in Devonshire, but he continued working with Pastor Evans until 1791 when the Topsham church became his sole responsibility. Topsham was a challenging call because it had for some years been influenced by Unitarian teaching, but he believed, and was encouraged by Calvinist friends, that the Lord was calling him to minister and turn the congregants from the theological descendant of Socinus.

Pastor Blatchford’s conversations with prisoners of war about America kept coming to mind as he mulled over solutions for the increasing difficulty he was having dealing with the restrictions upon him as a dissenting Presbyterian minister. He believed it was time for Alicia and their four children to leave for the newly-independent states of America. Blatchford circulated a letter among ministers and churches across the sea via a friend making the voyage. The Presbyterian Church in Bedford, New York, sent him a letter which he answered noting up front “that my religious principles are Calvinistic” (Memorial II, 1912, pp. 22-3). The Bedford congregation did not provide funds for his trip, so he had difficulty purchasing passage because the fare for himself, Alicia, and their four children was quite high. However, when a ship had to dock in Topsham for emergency repairs he asked the captain for passage, but even though the price was still high, Blatchford agreed and told his congregation that he was leaving. When he delivered his last sermon, the church was packed with 200 children from the Sabbath school along with the members of the congregation and friends from the village. He loved his congregation but was especially fond of the children because he had gathered them from the streets and alleys to attend the Sabbath school. His last sermon was from 2 Corinthians 5:9-10.

Wherefore we labor, that, whether present or absent, we may be accepted of Him. For, we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.

The captain of the ship was in attendance and was sufficiently affected by the sermon to reduce considerably the fare for the Blatchfords, and he asked Samuel to be the ship’s chaplain during the journey. With mixed emotions but anticipating their new home, the family made their way to the dock with many locals gathered in the streets waving and weeping. They sailed June 19, 1795, anticipating opportunities and freedom to worship not as Dissenters but instead as English-Presbyterian Americans.

The voyage went well with little sea sickness. The Blatchfords made port at Staten Island and went on to the village of Bedford. But there was a problem. Samuel’s anticipated pulpit had been given to another minister. The church apologized, but so much time had passed after it received his acceptance of the call that it was assumed he was no longer interested. What a disappointment for the family. The new minister offered to resign, but Blatchford would not hear of it. The church came up with a compromise and offered each minister alternating Lord’s Days to supply the church, however this arrangement did not last long because at the next meeting of the Presbytery of Hudson, Blatchford was examined and appointed sole supply. In just a matter of months he was invited to visit the Congregational Church in Greenfield Hill, Fairfield County, Connecticut, where Timothy Dwight had recently resigned to become president of Yale College. He supplied the church for six months until February 1797, when the Congregational Church at Stratfield (now in Bridgeport) Connecticut invited him to the church for six months. The tenure would give the congregation time to determine whether it wanted to give him a regular call. His time of testing was passed successfully, and he became the minister under the condition that a building for an academy be constructed so he could teach for additional income. The Blatchford household eventually had seventeen children, so the cost of maintaining the family was high. He was installed by the Congregational Association of Fairfield East, and remained in Stratfield preaching and teaching until 1804 when he went to the Presbyterian churches in Lansingburgh and Waterford, New York. The new situation offered a better salary for his expanding family, and he would continue teaching as master of the Lansingburgh Academy. Blatchford was installed by the Presbytery of Columbia in July.

An important contribution to educational curriculum by Blatchford resulted from the difficulty his students had using James Moor’s Greek grammar textbook that was written in Latin. It is hard to believe, isn’t it, that English speaking students ever studied Greek using a Latin textbook. Professor Blatchford took on the task of translation and published in 1807 the lengthy titled 200-page book, Elements of the Greek Language: Exhibited, for the Most Part, in New Rules, Made Easy to Which are Added, Greville Ewing’s Continuation and Syntax. William B. Sprague commented, “This Grammar met with considerable favor in its day, and was adopted by several of our colleges.” As the demands of his pastoral charge increased his work for the academy decreased. By 1811, he withdrew from administrating and teaching for the academy but continued as a trustee.

Sprague was acquainted with Samuel Blatchford and praised his work as a churchman.

He was most exemplary in his attendance on the judicatories of the Church. In the Presbytery, the Synod, and the General Assembly, of which he was frequently a member because his brethren felt they were safe in committing their ecclesiastical interests to his care his opinions consistently commanded great attention and respect. On these occasions particularly, he always left the impression that he was an eminently wise counsellor, as well as a faithful friend of the Church to which he belonged.

The General Assembly showed its confidence by honoring him with its highest office. Commissioners gathered in First Church, Philadelphia, at eleven the morning of May 20, 1813. After retiring moderator Andrew Flinn delivered a sermon from John 2:10, “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life,” Samuel Blatchford of the Presbytery of Columbia was elected moderator. He soon appointed Samuel Blair and Samuel Miller a committee to negotiate the assembly’s use of the Independent Tabernacle for sessions the next day. The Independent Tabernacle had been established in 1804 by a group from Second Church. An early item of business before Blatchford was reception of a report from Andrew Flinn regarding the disposition of a petition protesting opening and carrying mail on the Sabbath. The petition had been delivered to Representative Langdon Cheves of South Carolina with hopes for success, but Flinn reported the petition was denied.

The Committee of Overtures laid before the assembly a document that included extracts from the minutes of the Synod of the Carolinas concerning the censure of the Presbytery of Harmony for ordaining sine titulo (without call) without consulting a higher judicatory for direction. The overture was passed on to a committee of Samuel Miller, John Woodhull, William Neill, Robert Finley, and elder Zechariah Lewis with the instructions they report for the order of the day on Tuesday morning. When the report was presented it was partially adopted with the remaining portion recommitted to the committee that was increased with the addition of President Ashbel Green of Princeton College. The committee’s report was later adopted with two points.

The first, that neither the Synod of the Carolinas or Harmony Presbytery “can be justly subject to censure” and that both judicatories were following the constitutional regulations “which they believed to be obligatory on them.” Further, there were extenuating circumstances such that “the Assembly did not consider either of those bodies as censurable for what they had done severally in the business of ordaining ministers of the gospel sine titulo.”

The second point proposed a revision of the church constitution because there was…

considerable and evident diversity of opinion … among the judicatures and ministers of our communion … whether Presbyteries can regularly proceed to ordination sine titulo, without consulting a higher judicature … it is hereby expedient for the peace and order of the Church, that this question should be decided, this Assembly therefore repeal the act of the last Assembly, by which a farther attention to this subject was dismissed, and this Assembly do further direct, that all the Presbyteries under the care of the Assembly, as well those which have heretofore voted on this subject, as those which have not, do send up in writing the expressions of their opinion on the subject to the next General Assembly, in order that there may be a constitutional and final decision on the point in controversy, and that the practice relative thereto may be uniform in all parts of our Church.

The statement sent down to the presbyteries is, “It shall be the duty of Presbyteries, when they think it necessary to ordain a candidate without a call to a particular pastoral charge, to take the advice of a Synod, or of the General Assembly, before they proceed to such ordination.” It was rejected by the presbyteries, 26 to 4. The issue had reoccurred in the judicatories since the earliest days of American Presbyterianism.

Why was ordination without a call an issue? One reason among others is that any ordaining presbytery is recognizing the authenticity of the inward call of God by hearing a candidates testimony, questioning him, and observing outward evidence, a part of which is a call to a particular ministry. Is the candidate qualified, and does he have something specific to do within the definition of a gospel minister? God does not call to free-lance; God calls to a particular work whether it is pastor, teacher, or missionary/evangelist and all who are ordained are responsible for a particular work. As recently as 1805, the Presbytery of New Castle requested to ordain John Waugh (no known relationship) sine titulo, and the Synod of Philadelphia laid a reference before the Assembly seeking direction. The Assembly authorized the presbytery to ordain him “from a full view of his qualifications and other attending circumstances, [and] … think it expedient.” The word expedient occurs often when reading old minutes and its definition tends to be adjusted by those involved to fit the situation (similar to ordination as an extraordinary case). There are truly expedient or extraordinary situations when ordaining ministers, but the terms are so easily abused it is better to avoid their use. Then earlier, at the 1800 Assembly, the Presbytery of Lewes sought permission to ordain James Lang sine titulo, but in that case, it was resolved the reasons for the ordination were “not sufficient, and therefore…not granted.” As late as 1843, the records of the Synod of Illinois were approved by the Assembly except for the synod’s censure of Knox Presbytery “for ordaining a man when there was no call from any part of the Church.” What is a candidate ordained to do outside the context of the legitimate and well defined duties provided in Scripture?

Other issues that came before Moderator Blatchford included requesting the presbyteries to canvas their congregations to determine how many families do not have Bibles so copies could be provided. The presbyteries of South Carolina, Hopewell, and Harmony together became the Synod of South Carolina and Georgia when it was organized at Upper Long Cane Church, Thursday, November 4, with Henry Kollock assigned to preach the sermon. The Theological Seminary reported having completed its first academic year with Princeton having been decided to be the permanent site, and it was decided to designate a second faculty position which Samuel Miller filled as professor of ecclesiastical history and church government. After nine years of trying to write a history of the Presbyterian Church, Ashbel Green and Ebenezer Hazard, Esq., gave up the project to Samuel Miller (as if he didn’t have enough to do). Other decisions involved changing presbytery boundaries, increasing effort to raise funds for poor and pious youth, appointing missionaries, and a lengthy narrative of religion indicative of the growth of the denomination the preceding year. The assembly was dissolved Saturday, May 29, with the next meeting scheduled to meet in First Church, Philadelphia, Thursday, May 19, 1814. Sessions had been held during a ten-day period which included one Sabbath when the commissioners did not meet. It had been a long time for Moderator Blatchford to stand at the podium, but he had overseen several items of business and heard reports of the increasing ministry of his denomination.

One significant acquaintance for Blatchford in Lansingburgh was Stephen Van Rensselaer, III, who served in both the New York Senate and Assembly and was a representative to the United States Congress, 1822-1829, and he had considerable interest in education. During the first quarter of the nineteenth century the Swiss educator Philipp Emanuel von Fellenberg developed a program for education at three levels—the poor school, the realschule for scientific education of the middle classes, and a scientific program for the higher classes. His effort to use this system at Hofwyl met with mixed success and when he died in 1844 the school became but a memory within four years. One American educator interested in Fellenberg was John Griscom who published an article about Fellenberg in The Academician, 1819, and he released a two-volume work, A Year in Europe, 1823, in which he discussed Fellenberg’s work. Rensselaer likely became interested in Fellenberg through Griscom’s work, and it is even possible he visited Hofwyl. Rensselaer enlisted Blatchford to be the first president of what was called Rensselaer Institute which was established in 1824 in Troy. Amos Eaton of Troy was the senior professor with his junior Lewis E. Beck of Albany. When the Institute was started, it appears to have been similar to a modern vocational or specialized technical-scientific school. President Blatchford continued at Rensselaer’s school until his death March17, 1828. The autopsy found a fourteen-pound tumor on one of his kidneys. Pastor Blatchford had been a minister for just over forty years and the sermon for his funeral was delivered by President Eliphalet Nott of Union College. Nott would go on to be the third president of Rensselaer Institute in 1829. Blatchford was honored with the Master of Arts from Yale College, 1796, and Doctor of Divinity from Williams College, 1808. He was a director of Princeton Theological Seminary, 1812-1827. He is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Troy, Rensselaer County, New York, with Alicia who survived him to 1846, and fifteen of their children.

Publications by him include: An Address, Delivered to the Oneida Indians, September 24, 1810, which includes a reply by Christian, the Oneida Chief; A Sermon, Delivered at the Ordination of the Rev. Benjamin Franklin Stanton, in the city of Hudson, January 9, 1817, Hudson; The Excellency of the Scriptures, A Sermon, Delivered before the Albany Bible Society, at their Annual Meeting, in the North Dutch Church, February 12, 1811; An Address Delivered at Newfield, Connecticut. On the Anniversary of American Independence. July 4, 1798; Constitution and Laws of Rensselaer School, in Troy, New York, Adopted by the Board of Trustees, April 3, 1826. Together with a Catalogue of Officers and Students; The Sanctification of the Sabbath, a Sermon, Delivered November 27, 1825; A Sermon, Delivered at the Ordination of the Reverend Absalom Peters, to the Pastoral Care of the Congregational Church in Bennington, July 5, 1820, A Farewell Address, Delivered at the Dutch Church at Waterford, Occasioned by the Departure of Three Detached Companies of Artillery of the Militia of the State of New York … [etc.]; The Great Duty of Universal Love: A Sermon Preached at Topsham, November 10, 1793; and The Nature and Necessity of the New Creature, A Sermon Preached at Bridgeport, May 16, 1792, at the Western Calvinistic Association, Exeter, England, 1792. Log College Press has several of Blatchford’s publications available for download at Samuel Blatchford (1767-1828).

Barry Waugh


Notes—The header of Troy circa 1800 is from the New York Public Library Digital Collections. The letter from Green to Laurens is from “American Prisoners in Mill Prison at Plymouth, in 1782: Captain John Green’s Letter,” The South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Apr., 1909), pp. 116-124. The biographical information for Henry Laurens is from C. James Taylor’s informative article in South Carolina Encyclopedia, edited by Walter Edgar, 2006. The information about the Assembly and sine titulo ordination is summarized in W. E. Moore’s Digest of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America Compiled by the Order and Authority of the General Assembly, Philadelphia, 1861; note that not all editions of Moore have all the actions of the Assembly up to the date of digest publication. Biographical information is from—W. B. Sprague, volume 4, Annals of the American Pulpit; The Blatchford Memorial, New York, 1871, which was issued in a revised edition in 1912 titled, Blatchford Memorial II: A Genealogical Record of the Family of Rev. Samuel Blatchford, D.D., with Some Mention of Allied Families, also Autobiographical Sketch of Rev. Dr. Blatchford from “The Blatchford memorial.” Regarding his work for Rensselaer see, Biographical Record of the Officers and Graduates of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 1824-1886, Troy, 1887. Another source is The Bi-centennial Celebration of the First Congregational Church and Society of Bridgeport, Connecticut, June 12th and 13th, 1895, Bridgeport, 1895. Also used was a transcript of “Stephen Van Rensselaer’s really interesting letter to Samuel Blatchford, Nov. 5, 1824,” as at— https://archives.rpi.edu/institute-history/early-documents/stephen-van-rensselaers-letter-samuel-blatchford-nov5-1824; the letter asks Blatchford to become president of the trustees and it briefly describes the plan for the school as adapted from Fellenberg. Information about Fellenberg’s work in Switzerland and its influence on American education was located in the dissertation, “Technology and Educational Reform in Early America,” written by Thomas Knight Shotwell, 1965, which is available online from Louisiana State University, LSU Digital Commons. Burial information is from the nice entry at Find a Grave; the Blatchford’s have a strong sense of family through the generations.

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